Little black dress? Check.
Four-inch heels? Check.
Strappy, sexy lingerie guaranteed to make Quinn lose his mind? Check.
I was all dressed and ready to go when he called.
“Hey, babe, I’m so sorry. The shoot is running late.” Quinn’s modeling days were supposed to be behind him, but an old photographer friend had asked him to do a shoot at the last minute–no big deal, except it was our anniversary.
“Late! But you’ve been gone all day. I thought it was supposed to be a quick thing.” I didn’t want to sound whiney, but I was so disappointed.
“That’s what the photographer said. But the other model was late showing up, and then there was a problem with the lighting, so everything took longer than planned.”
“It’s already after six, Quinn. Our reservation is in less than an hour. We won’t make it.” Normally, I wouldn’t care so much about dinner plans, but it was our one-year anniversary of living together. I wanted to celebrate how far we’d come, and I’d barely seen him except for a quick kiss goodbye this morning.
“Listen, we’re nearly done. We can still make it if you meet me downtown. Why don’t you jump in an Uber?”
I frowned. There goes my idea about the pre-dinner road blowie. “I guess I could. Where are you?”
“Eastern Market. Park in the lot off Adelaide. You’ll see a tent set up and I’ll meet you there.”
“Okay. Do you have dress clothes? Should I bring you anything?” I thought he’d left the house in shorts and a T-shirt this morning, but I’d still been half asleep, it was so early.
“I’ve got everything I need except you.”
That made me smile. “See you soon.”
About thirty minutes later, I parked in the lot Quinn had indicated and looked around for a tent. I didn’t see one. Just as I pulled out my phone to call him, my brother-in-law Nolan approached, a huge smile on his face.
“Nolan?” I blinked at him. “What are you doing here?”
His grin got even wider.
I glanced over my shoulder, suddenly suspicious. “And where’s Quinn? Where’s the tent?”
He laughed and handed me an envelope. “I can’t say anything more.”
Narrowing my eyes, I studied the envelope. CLUE #1, it said in black ink on the front. The handwriting was Quinn’s. I looked at Nolan again. “What is this?”
“Open it,” he said, clasping his hands together.
I did, ripping open the envelope and pulling out a piece of paper.
Check my Instagram.
Baffled, I pulled my phone from my purse and checked Quinn’s account.
There was a photo of Quinn, posted fifteen minutes ago, in which he wore a suit and was holding up a sign that said ANNIVERSARY SCAVENGER HUNT.
I gasped, covering my mouth with one hand. The caption read, Happy Anniversary to my one and only love bug. If you can find me, I have a surprise for you. But first, turn around.
I whirled around and let out a shriek. Waiting there in the street was a horse-drawn carriage. The driver waved at me. “Jaime Owens?”
He held up another envelope. “I have something for you.”
I looked at Nolan, who shrugged and winked. “Go on. He’s waiting.”
“Oh my God, I can’t believe this!” But I could, actually, because Quinn was the most romantic guy I’d ever known. He’d taught me to appreciate these wild romantic gestures, which was why I found myself bolting for the carriage instead of groaning with embarrassment, like I would have done a year ago.
“Here you are,” said the driver, handing me the envelope.
CLUE #2, it read. When I opened it up, I found a piece of paper that said, Tell the driver to take you to the restaurant where it all began–our first date.
I thought for a moment. “Antietam,” I said to the driver. “Can you take me there?”
“Of course,” he said. Then he offered me a hand, helping me into the carriage–not easy in my heels and LBD, which had a narrow skirt, but I managed.
“Have fun!” Nolan called out, blowing me a kiss. “And happy anniversary!” A crowd had gathered, and several people watched as the carriage pulled away. A few even waved.
I felt like a fucking Disney Princess. And I liked it.
On the short drive to Antietam, my heart continued to pound with excitement. I wondered how long Quinn had been planning this. Where would I end up? What could the surprise be?
Could he actually be planning to propose?
I put my hands over my stomach, which was jittering like mad. When we’d first moved in together, Quinn had made references to getting married in sort of a general sense, like something in the distant future, but it had been a while since he’d brought it up–so long that I’d begun to worry that maybe he’d changed his mind and didn’t think it was necessary. I’d even dropped a few hints here and there, but he’d never taken the bait.
Was it because he had this planned all along? It was so him to leave me hanging this way!
At Antietam, the driver helped me down, and told me he’d wait. After thanking him, I entered the restaurant. The host greeted me with a smile. “Jaime?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Right this way.”
I followed the host through the crowded dining room to the table where Quinn and I had sat the night of Claire’s birthday dinner, technically our “first date,” although Quinn had invited himself along. I expected him to be sitting there, but instead, there were Claire and Margot.
“Cheers!” they sang out, lifting glasses of champagne.
“Oh my God!” I put a hand over my heart and shook my head. My eyes teared up. “I can’t believe this, you guys.”
Claire gestured to the chair across from them. “Sit. Have a drink with us–it’s on Quinn.”
Margot held up a third coupe brimming with golden bubbly. “Here you are, darling.”
I sat down and lifted my glass.
“To love,” Claire said. “Long may it last.”
We all sipped and I set down my glass, still amazed. “How long have you guys known he was planning this?”
They exchanged a look.
“A while,” Margot admitted. “But Quinn swore us to secrecy.”
“It’s so romantic, isn’t it?” Claire gushed. “I can’t wait to–ouch!”
I looked back and forth between them. Claire was biting her lip and leaning down to rub her leg beneath the table, and Margot had assumed a look of total innocence. “What’s going on?” I demanded. “What do you guys know?”
“We know nothing,” Margot said breezily.
“I don’t believe you.” I eyed them both. “Is he going to propose?”
Margot kept her cool. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Claire’s eyes slid to the left.
I burst out laughing. “Okay, okay, never mind. I’ll just enjoy the ride tonight, no matter what happens.”
“Are you saying you actually want him to propose?” Claire burst out.
I shrugged. “I wouldn’t be against it.”
Margot groaned. “Promise me that would not be your response if he popped the question.”
“I promise.” I grinned and sipped again. “And yes, Claire, I do hope he proposes. I can’t even believe I’m saying it, but I’m saying it. I want to marry Quinn.”
Claire squealed and clapped her hands. “So where do you think you’re going next?”
“I can’t imagine.”
“Well…” Margot drawled, pulling an envelope from her purse. “Why don’t you read this and try to guess?”
CLUE #3, it said on the front. Inside, the note read, Or maybe it all began here, where I caught you in the act.
For a moment, I was confused. Caught me in the act?
“What does it say?” Claire asked.
I read the note aloud–and then it hit me. “Oh my God,” I said, collapsing in a fit of giggles, rocking back in my chair. “He means his closet in his old flat. He once caught me spying on him from there.”
“What on earth?” Margot looked aghast. “Why were you spying on him from his closet?”
As we finished our champagne, I finally told them the story. “It was so embarrassing. But at least it ended well!”
The girls walked me out to the carriage, sighing as the driver helped me in.
“I need a picture for posterity!” Claire insisted. She snapped a few with her phone, and then I gave the driver the address of the house Quinn and I used to live in. My brother still owned it, but currently it didn’t have tenants because he was renovating the kitchens in both the upper and lower flats.
I waved goodbye to Claire and Margot and settled in for the ride, enjoying the evening summer breeze and sunset sky. At one point, I checked Instagram again just to see Quinn’s post about the Scavenger hunt one more time and was surprised to see he’d posted one of Claire’s photos of me in the carriage already! The caption read, She’s on her way! One step closer to her surprise. See you soon, love bug.
Claire, that sneak!
I smiled all the way to my old house, where I saw Alex standing in the driveway. He helped me down from the carriage and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“Hey.” I grinned at him. “Is Quinn in there?”
He mimed zipping his lips. “I know nothing. I’m just supposed to let you in.”
After unlocking the front door for me, I made my way to the back of Quinn’s old flat, so many memories rushing back to me–lying together on the couch, cooking pierogie in his kitchen, making love in his bed. And in the shower. And on the kitchen floor.
Inside his former bedroom, which was completely empty, I switched on the light and opened the louvered doors. The memory of being trapped in there while Quinn undressed hit me all over again, and I clapped both hands over my mouth.
On the floor was another envelope. CLUE #5.
Eagerly I bent down and snatched it up. It said, Hey snoop. I’ll never forget the day I caught you in here and knew you were it for me. But I want to take you even further back, to a time when I was just an eighteen-year-old boy desperately crushing on the gorgeous girl in the red bikini, the only one he couldn’t touch, the only one he ever wanted.
My heart pounded. Was he talking about my parents’ house? The pool party for his and Alex’s graduation where I’d shoved him into the bathroom and tried to make him kiss me? Told him I loved him? In other words, the setting for the most humiliating episode of my life?
Laughing to myself, I went back out to the curb where the carriage was waiting. Alex helped me up again, and I gave the driver the address of my childhood home.
“Have fun!” my brother called as we pulled away in the darkness.
When we pulled up at my parents’ house ten minutes later, the driver bid me goodnight.
“You’re leaving?” I asked, surprised. Was Quinn here?
“Yes, ma’am. My services have been paid for, so you’re all set. You have a good night.” He tipped his hat to me.
“Thank you. You too.” I walked up the driveway as the horse clip-clopped away, and let myself in the front door.
My parents were standing there in the front hall, trying to look natural and failing miserably.
“Hi, honey,” my mom said, unable to keep the smile off her face.
I shook my head and gave them both a hug. “You guys are in on this, too?”
“Know where you’re going?” my dad asked.
“Uh, yes, I think so.” Hoping Quinn hadn’t actually told them the story, I went into the first floor bathroom and flipped on the light. On the marble counter was another envelope.
I tore it open.
So many nights I wished I could go back and kiss you the way I wanted to. Tell you the truth about how I felt. Since I can’t do that, let’s go forward–meet me where you came to live with me one year ago, which has been the best year of my life. Hopefully, it is only the beginning.
PS. Check Instagram.
I fumbled for my phone in my purse and looked at his account. He’d just posted a photo of a limousine in my parents’ driveway, the door open, the driver waiting by its side.
Squealing, I tucked the final clue into my bag with the others and rushed back through the house and out the front door. Sure enough, there was the limo and driver, just like in the photograph. My parents were out there, too. Had one of them snapped the photo and sent it to Quinn? I could not get over how elaborate this whole thing was! My heart was overflowing with love–for Quinn, for my friends, for my family, for my entire life. I really was lucky, no matter how this night ended, ring on my finger or not.
I said goodbye to my parents and let the driver help me into the back of the car. “Do you need the address?” I asked him.
“No, ma’am.” He shut the door and we were off.
It seemed like forever before we pulled up at the building downtown where Quinn and I lived. I thanked the driver, who assured me he’d already been paid and tipped, and practically ran through the lobby into the elevators. My heart rate ascended rapidly as I went up, and by the time the doors opened on our floor, I could hardly breathe. I bolted out before they were even all the way open and took off down the hall.
In front of our door, which was open a crack, I stopped and listened. I heard music–our song.
With trembling hands I pushed the door all the way open and stepped inside.
Then I gasped.
The huge open space was dark except for all the white candles that had been placed on every possible surface–there had to be hundreds of them–and the city lights twinkling through the massive windows from below. The entire room sparkled and glowed. Quinn stood in the middle of the floor, dressed in a suit and tie, so handsome it made me dizzy.
“What…what is this?” I asked, too afraid to let myself consider the possibilities.
Quinn got down on one knee. “Come here and I’ll tell you.”
I started to cry, but I managed to walk toward him, although my knees were knocking. When I reached him, he took my hands in his and looked up at me. His blue eyes still gave me goosebumps.
“Jaime, I honestly never thought this moment would come. Not when I was twelve, and you were just my best friend’s annoying little sister. Not when I was sixteen and started to look at you differently. Not when I was eighteen and would have given anything to be with you.”
I sniffed. “I would have, too.”
“But it wasn’t right, then. I had to wait. You weren’t even out of high school yet, and I didn’t want to be just some guy you dated on your way to the real thing.” He swallowed. “I wanted to be the real thing.”
“You are the real thing,” I promised, tears spilling over. “You always were.”
He smiled, making my blood run hotter in my veins. “Hopefully, I always will be.” He reached inside his suit coat and pulled something from the pocket–a ring box.
I covered my mouth with my hands.
“Jaime Owens, I’ve loved you longer than you know. When I saw you again last year, it hit me that I’d traveled all over the world searching for something I had in you all along. Family. Home. Belonging. I vowed right then and there I’d make you believe in love if it was the last thing I did. And I’m not saying it was a picnic the entire time, but I wouldn’t change it–we still got here, didn’t we?”
Nodding, I wiped my eyes again and smiled. “We did.”
He opened the box, revealing a brilliant cushion-cut diamond on a pavé-studded platinum band. It was stunning. “You once said you didn’t think it was possible to know for sure someone would always make you happy. I said I could be the one to change your mind. Did I do it?”
“Yes,” I whispered. “You did.”
“Good.” He took my hand and slipped that heart-stopping ring on my finger. “Then Jaime Elizabeth Owens, will you do me the honor of being my wife?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling even as tears dripped down my cheeks. “I will.”
He stood up and wrapped me in his arms. I looped mine around his neck and felt him lift me right off the ground, rocking me back and forth. Then he set me on my feet and kissed my lips, long and deep.
I knew in my heart this was meant to be.
I hope you enjoyed this bonus epilogue! Don’t miss the next book in the series, AFTER WE FALL, Margot and Jack’s story!